What is agile anyway?

I’ve taken an extended break from writing. Life happened. The pandemic happened. I needed some time to take care of myself for a while. And while I am not making many promises to write regularly, I left tonight’s joint event with Columbus Product Club and Women in Agile Columbus feeling like I actually had something to say.

Over the last year or so I’ve become a little less extroverted and a little more introverted. I feel it in social events. Still, there’s something to be said for being in a room of people who think similarly that gives me energy. It’s infectious.

It got me thinking. I came into agile before there was any hype about it, before the certifications and the big agile frameworks and the conferences and special titles. What agile looked like to me then made so much sense. Excellence in engineering and test driven development. Everyone on the team contributing to the goal. Daily huddles on the work. Delighting the customer. Knowledge sharing. Lessons learned. Getting something working first, and seeing whether we should invest more time and effort into it.

When I am my best self I am pushing to learn and grow, and here was a way to do that daily, in collaboration with others. Here was a team based approach that created a safety net for software development and the tasks and outcomes that are a part of it.

Here I found names for the stuff I did naturally (like pair program, or mobbing or getting something done fast in order to test it, or teaching other people what you know, etc).

Here I could raise a problem or mistake and instead of being shot as the messenger, I was embraced. “Thank you for making us better,” and “Please help us to design a way to avoid this preventable mistake in the future,” or “Let’s put together what we have learned from this and share it!”

Here I learned agile as a mindset, not a practice like a kanban board or a software program like JIRA, or a meeting like a stand up, or named roles like scrum master. It was a way of thinking.

The agile I learned about had values and principles that focused on the customer, working solutions, people first and responding to change. It was “how can we find out sooner?” It was a way to reduce the risk of being wrong and learn. It was ok to fail, which meant we could experiment more. It was about improving. Given I have always had this insatiable, aggressive curiosity it just worked for me. It felt right.

I’m not saying I was the world’s best engineer, but I wasn’t bad. I could figure things out. I learned new languages, frameworks and concepts. I worked in different industries. Teams that worked in agile ways or were open to learning them were my favorites. I probably could have continued like that indefinitely, until….

Until… I saw people “doing agile” in ways it shouldn’t be done. I am sure there are lots of opinions on what agile isn’t or shouldn’t do, but I’ll make it simple: I saw agile being used to mistreat people.

I am intimately familiar that we cannot do everything. That we have to say no to some things. I get it. However if there is a true customer need, and we aren’t addressing it, we may want to ask ourselves why.

If the engineering process or path to production isn’t safe, we might want to figure out what we can do about that. If we have people who aren’t getting value from our meetings or conversations, something deeper is going on.

Agile, the way I learned it, is about self discovery and vulnerability. It’s most impactful when the most senior people on your team say, “I am not good at x, and I am trying to get better.” Or they notice something they do that impacts the team and they ask for help calling it out. Or we call out a problem, blamelessly, and work together to find a way to solve it that works for everyone on the team.

Look, this is not intended to be one of those “this is agile” or “this is not agile” posts. I’m interested to hear your perspective if you feel like sharing but I’m not looking for a debate. This is not one of those posts where we duke it out. I am curious (like I am about a lot of things) how different people define it but the purpose of this post is to share how _I see it_.

What I resonate with is helping people find their way forward through uncertainty. There are a lot of disciplines outside of engineering that have uncertainty ahead of them right now. It seems to be everywhere I look. Whether we call it agile or design thinking or lean or something else probably doesn’t matter as much as we often think it does. I’m more interested in moving forward with a shared understanding that we need a way of confronting this looming wave of uncertainty in front of us. Because I think there’s another bigger wave behind it. I don’t believe it is going to get better any time soon. I believe it’s going to get worse. If we want our careers to be resilient we are going to need to, all of us, figure out how we deal with uncertainty – be it on an individual, team or organizational level. I am passionate about this.

I’m passionate about solving sticky problems, testing assumptions, debugging communications, collaboration excellence and learning. “How can we find out?” and “What obvious thing are we missing?” and “Who sees it differently?” and “How are these 3 problems related?”

And perhaps what I am most passionate about is hearing from all voices in the room – and there are a number of agile principles and potential practices that help that happen – that essentially put teammates on more equal footing so they can be vulnerable with each other.

It never ceases to amaze when someone is vulnerable and reveals something that is a game changer.

Not long ago a younger engineer said in response to my request for facilitation feedback on a retrospective meeting, “You know I really don’t think we need to write down anything on post its for this meeting. I think we can just each share out loud.”

And someone else on the team said, “I hear what you are saying. I think we should talk about that. I like writing on post its. If I am only speaking out loud I often think I don’t have anything to say. Having the time to think and write silently really helps me realize I have things to offer to the conversation.”

Time to check in with yourself on how the work is going was always a gift for me. It gives me space to think about the work away from doing the work (red work vs blue work, or getting off the dance floor and into the balcony).

And that you can use the agile mindset to make this kind of conversation possible is absolutely invaluable. Without that setting and conversation we might have made a decision to stop doing something that was helping everyone on the team contribute more equally.

And why is that important? Here’s the last thing I’ll mention that resonates for me about agile. Because we are not all equal, because we come to our work with different training, skills, knowledge and experience… because we all have strengths and weaknesses… because we are all human… teamwork benefits from mindset which values growing together and designed to bring out the questions, ideas and observations from everyone on the team.

Who sees it differently? I’m interested to learn from you.

Categorized as Agile

By carina

Amateur painter.